Saturday, 24 December 2011

"May all my enemies go to hell" - my favourite Christmas poems

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Georges de La Tour

Leafing through TS Eliot’s Collected Poems a few years ago, the closing lines of “Journey of the Magi” – which I’d heard and read many times before – suddenly hit me like a fist:
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
There’s so much meaning packed into those lines, you could devote a book to them (I expect several American academics have already done so). The weary, dismissive, almost disgusted waft of the hand suggested by “these Kingdoms”, which reduces the realities of earthly wealth and power to meaningless baubles, is, I think, one of the greatest master-strokes in all poetry. As for “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation” – well, it’s drenched in significance: the transformative effect of the Christian message summed up in nine words.

Then there’s the alien people fearfully “clutching” their gods – more baubles (“clutching” is sheer genius). Which of us hasn’t had that experience of suddenly waking from our habitual trance state and thinking “who are these people, and why are they doing that?” Just watch The X Factor or leaf through OK Magazine or listen a modern stand-up comic vomiting bile for a few minutes – these are all profoundly disorienting experiences.

As for the last line – well, Lordy, it’s a zinger! I’m buggered if I can find a single hint of solace in the whole poem – the narrator even describes Christ’s birth as “hard and bitter agony for us”. And yet I find it more moving and convincing than  any other overtly religious poem.

(I realise, of course, that “Journey of the Magi” is poor stuff compared to the profound insights vouchsafed us by Tim Minchin in the poem insulting Christ and Christians yanked in a panic from last night’s Jonathan Ross show on ITV – but obviously Minchin is the product of a far richer, more progressive culture than the one that produced a confused duffer like Eliot.)

“The Oxen” doesn’t exactly find Thomas Hardy on top form:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock
'Now they are all on their knees.'
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
'Come, see the oxen kneel.'
In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.
If it wasn’t for the last line, I’d never have bothered rereading it – but because “hoping it might be so” exactly sums up my attitude when I began taking an interest in religion some sixteen years ago, after a long spiritual lay-off, I’m affected by it.

But not as affected as I am by John Betjeman’s “Christmas”. It’s stuffed with characteristic delights: “And girls in slacks remember Dad,/And oafish louts remember Mum”, and:
…lamp-oil light across the night
Has caught the streaks of winter rain
In many a stained-glass window sheen
From Crimson Lake to Hookers Green
But it’s the last three stanzas that must speak to anyone who has ever thought about Christianity without instantly rejecting it as a silly fantasy created by the rich to keep the credulous poor in their place (in other words, if you aren’t a Radio 4 “comedian”):
And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window's hue,
A Baby in an ox's stall ?
The Maker of the stars and sea
Become a Child on earth for me ?
And is it true ? For if it is,
No loving fingers tying strings
Around those tissued fripperies,
The sweet and silly Christmas things,
Bath salts and inexpensive scent
And hideous tie so kindly meant, 
No love that in a family dwells,
No carolling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare -
That God was man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.
I doubt you have to be a believer to enjoy that. Gets me every time.

Let me mention a few other poems in despatches. First – and rather surprisingly - there’s “Prayer for a New Mother” by Dorothy Parker, which I find poignant.

I read James Arlington Wright’s “Having Lost My Sons, I Confront The Wreckage Of The Moon: Christmas, 1960” for the first time about an hour ago, and keep breaking off from writing this to reread it – and not just because he mentions Norwegians.

Robert Frost’s “Christmas Trees” was the first poem I ever read aloud in public. It offers an original take on a seasonal icon – and Frost’s stuff is just perfect for reading aloud.

Finally, there's Hillaire Belloc's sensitive two-line poem, "Lines for a Christmas Card", whose sentiments I'm sure we would all endorse:
May all my enemies go to hell,
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Indeed! In the meantime, whether you’re a believer or not, and whether or not you give a stuff about poetry – a Merry Christmas to you!

1 comment:

  1. Good list. I'd only add John Donne's Nativity.